Obama keeps focus on reform story 'villain'
By Ben Pershing
Two clichéd axioms have become relevant this week as President Obama focuses his fire on the health-insurance industry -- every good story needs a villain, and the best defense is a good offense.
With doubts persisting on whether Democrats will have the votes or the momentum to pass reform, the Washington Post writes: "The White House is mounting a stinging, sustained broadside against health insurance rate increases as President Obama and his aides enter what they hope will be the final stretch of a year-long political war over health-care reform. Obama and his health secretary staged a two-pronged attack Monday in a stern letter to health insurance chief executives and a speech in which the president castigated insurance companies 22 times." The Los Angeles Times calls Obama's Monday appearance in Pennsylvania "impassioned," adding: "Removing his suit coat, Obama spoke with an emotional intensity that one Democratic senator said had been lacking in his previous healthcare speeches. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who flew up and back with the president on Air Force One, told reporters afterward: 'That's the most fiery I've seen him since the early campaign. When I was listening to him I wished that he had given that in the State of the Union' address in January." Separately, Bloomberg reports, Kathleen Sebelius "wrote to UnitedHealth Group Inc., WellPoint, Aetna Inc. and Cigna Corp. yesterday, reiterating a request that they disclose how much of premiums go toward customers' medical care, as well as administrative costs, executive salaries and profit. "
Obama may be rallying support for his plan to curb premium increases, but the New York Times says "state officials are leery of the proposal, which raises a host of questions: How would Congress define 'excessive'? How would the new federal power relate to state insurance regulation? The proposal has great political appeal. But experts see a serious potential problem: Federal officials will focus on holding down premiums while state officials focus on the solvency of insurers, the ultimate consumer protection." Politico reports that insurance company executives say that "after they spent an hour making the case that pharmaceutical manufacturers, hospitals, medical device companies and other medical service providers are driving costs upward, there was no commitment from the administration to include more stringent cost-control measures in the president's reform bill, attendees said."
The Hill examines the legislative strategy: "Senate Democratic leaders have decided to pair an overhaul of federal student lending with healthcare reform, according to a Democratic official familiar with negotiations. ... But leaders may have to reverse themselves if they receive strong pushback from Democratic colleagues who represent states where lenders employ hundreds of constituents." (Note that Harry Reid's office says "no final decision has been made" on this tactic.) Roll Call reports that "Senate Democrats and Republicans are poised to have a knock-down, drag-out fight over the arcane budget reconciliation process and equally esoteric rules as Congress races to pass a health care bill before Easter. Policy disagreements have become almost an afterthought as Republicans charge Democrats with twisting Senate rules to pass what they say is an unpopular bill while Democrats say the GOP's 'obstructionism' and hypocrisy have reached new heights." Huffington Post says "the Obama administration believes it gained a valuable boost last week in getting health care passed when a 50th Democratic senator informally announced he would back reconciliation fixes to the bill."
Gerald Seib offers two interpretations of Obama's latest moves: "Theory one: President Barack Obama is a pushover, jerked around by his own party's liberals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Chinese. Theory two: President Barack Obama is tough in a fight, as he's showing in frontal assaults on insurance companies, teachers unions and the Taliban. This is a week in which those opposing theories are being put to the test. The epic health-care struggle heads into what promises to be, finally, the real stretch run, pushing the president deeper into what is not only the biggest fight of his career, but also a testing ground for how he acts under maximum pressure." David Brooks observes that "for the Democrats, expanding health care coverage is an emotional hot spot. Over the past year, Democrats have fought passionately for universal coverage. They have fought for it even while the country is more concerned about the economy, and in the face of serial political defeats. They have fought for it even though it has crowded out other items on their agenda and may even cost them their majority in the House."
Elsewhere on the reform front, would psychiatric care be covered under Obama's plan? The question arises after the latest outbursts from Eric Massa, the New York Democrat who has become far more newsworthy (and entertaining) as an ex-member than he ever was during his short stint in the House. Under the headline, "Dems' sick plot sunk me: 'harass' pol," the New York Post reports: "Steamed upstate Rep. Eric Massa, who quit Congress yesterday amid allegations he sexually harassed a male staffer, said he was 'set up' by Democratic leaders because he opposed President Obama's health-care bill. The freshman congressman, who said he was the "deciding vote on health care," claimed he simply made an inappropriate joke about having sex with a male aide at a party -- but corrupt Democratic leaders railroaded him to save the bill." There's no actual evidence to support the charge by Massa, who had offered at least two previous explanations for why he's leaving office. On Good Morning America Tuesday, Robert Gibbs said "I think this whole story is ridiculous. I think the latest excuse is silly and ridiculous." Still, The Washington Post notes that "Massa's allegation ... fed into that growing anxiety about Democratic tactics. His comments spread quickly online, promoted by conservative blogs such as Red State and National Review Online." Politico writes that Massa has instantly become a "conservative media hero." Newsweek says "Massa's claim does raise a valid question of whether health-care reform passage in the House is hanging on one vote. The answer? No, it's almost certainly not. Calculus at this point is a guarded secret, but some members have mused that the House tally that was 'way short' a month ago hasn't moved much in the past few weeks. If anything, support for the measure has lost ground."
On the White House beat, Peter Baker checks in with the latest and longest dispatch yet on the job performance of Rahm Emanuel: "The stupid season has arrived for Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel, the unlikely tandem of inspirational leader and legislative mechanic that was supposed to enact the most expansive domestic program since the Great Society. After the debacle in Massachusetts that cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, Washington has engaged in a favorite exercise, conducting the autopsy before the body is actually dead. How had it come to this? How did the president's legislative drive drag on for so long that the surprise loss of a Senate seat could unravel it? Did Obama make a mistake by disregarding his top adviser's counsel? Or was it Emanuel who failed to execute the president's strategy? Was it both, or perhaps neither?" Baker also spots a paradox: "[I]f picking the leading practitioner of the dark arts of the capital was a Faustian bargain for Obama in the name of getting things done, why haven't things got done?" David Corn mocks the emerging narrative: "[T]he line seems to be drawn: Rahm vs. Ax. Take your pick -- and keep that backbiting gossip flowing, for the politerati relishes it. But there's someone missing from this picture: their boss. It's true that people make policy. But Obama is a brainy president capable of rendering big and tough calls on his own. He didn't need Emanuel to tell him that dumping single-payer would be a safe and conventional move. He didn't need Axelrod to advise him that pushing for sweeping reform would define his presidency. It's hard to imagine Obama being led along by either fellow."
Several outlets pick up on a new Democracy Corps-Third Way survey, which finds, "A majority of Americans say the United States is less respected in the world than two years ago and believe President Obama and other Democrats fall short of Republicans on the issue of national security," the Washington Times reports. Politico says the poll shows "Republican attacks against the Obama administration's handling of the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day are working ... even though the president's overall ratings on national security remain high." The Fix adds, "Even more concerning for [Democrats] in advance of the 2010 midterm election is that the erosion between the May 2009 and March 2010 was largest among political independents who now favor Republicans by a 56 percent to 20 percent margin." Time looks at the ongoing talks between Emanuel and Lindsey Graham over the fate of Guantanamo Bay, giving voice to the naysayers: "Democrats worry that by negotiating with Graham, the Administration is conceding defeat at the start. 'It's a self-fulfilling prophecy,' says a senior Senate Democratic aide, 'because if you let it be known that you might cut a deal because you think you don't have the votes, then you won't have the votes.'"
If Obama goes into 2012 looking weak on national security, which candidate on the GOP side would be best-positioned to take advantage? AP reports: "For a guy who professes to have no interest in running for president, Gen. David Petraeus can come off as surprisingly eager to talk about it -- sometimes without even being asked. ... Part of his stock reply to the politics question -- even when it's not asked -- is to cite lyrics from a Lorrie Morgan country-western song about rejecting an unwanted suitor: 'What part of 'no' don't you understand?' Then he chuckles as if to suggest he's a bit embarrassed by the fuss -- fuss sometimes of his own making. Is he keeping his options open?" Elsewhere in the GOP field, the Boston Herald writes that "Mitt Romney's presumed 2012 presidential campaign is getting off to a bumpy start as his signature Bay State health-care plan has come under new fire from conservatives because it subsidizes abortions." Carl Cannon offers six reasons why Obama remains the "odds-on favorite" to keep his job after 2012, pointing out that every prospective GOP candidate has flaws, that incumbency has its advantages and that "bad news is driving the public dissatisfaction" more than unhappiness with Obama himself.
March 9, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Health Care , The Rundown
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